Tag Archives: walking

Taking my body outside

Taking a Tai Chi class this year has changed how I think about my body, how I move, and how I interact with my environment. It’s made me aware of how my presence in my own body informs my relationship with what’s around my body – most especially, the ground.

One of the things the Tai Chi calls for is a deliberate process of moving weight between feet. Walking at the weekend I realised this had become part of how I think about moving. I noticed it when dealing with serious mud, and with muddy steps of awkward height. I’ve never been confident on slippery surfaces, and my depth perception isn’t great so judging an uneven surface is hard work.

Move the foot empty, is the constant refrain in my head. I know how to centre my weight over the other foot, how to use my knees so that the step out is balanced and I’m not committed. Then, moving the weight across while the feet are still. It creates far less scope for sliding, over-extending or falling. I discovered a body-confidence I’ve never had before.

When paths are really muddy, in the past I’ve had to slow down to deal with them. It’s been exciting not having to do that so much. My scope to enjoy the conditions and what’s around me has shifted as a consequence.

There are so many things we treat as though they should be innate, natural and not needing study. How to move the body is one of those – we learn to walk when too young to remember it, and most of us never think about that again. And yet, there are so many ways to move and manage a body. So many different things a body might do well, or badly, or not at all. So much good that can flow from being able to explore all of this.

So much of what we talk about in Druidry is spiritual and/or intellectual. It’s easy to forget that we encounter the rest of the world through our bodies, and that our embodied experiences are intrinsic to this spiritual path. What your body can or cannot do is going to impact on your Druidry. The simple process of learning how to shift my weight and how to think differently about my feet has entirely changed how I experience the world when it is damp and slippery underfoot.


Wilder Walking

One of the easiest ways to have a wilder walking experience, is to walk in more challenging weather conditions. If the weather is more dramatic, impacts on you, poses challenges and risks and difficulties, then the walk becomes an encounter with the elements. I wouldn’t recommend too much of this for the inexperienced walker, especially not in more treacherous landscapes. People who get too far out of their depth can be killed or injured. If you’re considering wilder walking, it’s important to know your experience level and not push too far beyond it.

In wilder weather, a landscape that is normally tame and full of landscape consumers becomes wilder. A wild landscape becomes potentially dangerous.  The sort of people who rock up in a car to air a dog don’t tend to show up in the frozen mist, the pouring rain, or the howling winds. This changes the feel of a gentler landscape significantly.

The trouble with this kind of walking is that you do need more specialist kit and that usually costs money. Getting soaked to the skin in winter is a wild and intense experience, but unless you have a really robust body, it can be an expensive one, too. I’ve never done it deliberately, although I’ve been caught out repeatedly having to walk in conditions for which I didn’t have the gear.

Stout, waterproof  boots with good grips are essential. I find waterproof trousers make the whole thing more feasible. I’ve also found that all of my waterproof coats will soak through at the shoulders and elbows especially in torrential rain. Get wet for long enough and the trousers soak through too, and water down the leg will eventually get into a waterproof boot.

This weekend I experimented with a poncho made out of the remains of a dead tent. I wore it over my regular waterproof coat. I was out for a long time and some of the rain was pretty intense – enough that it would have got through the coat in the normal scheme of things. I was delighted to find the upcycled poncho repelling water – my coat did not soak through. My scope for adventuring is much improved by this, and I’ve kept material out of landfill by successfully re-purposing it.


Consuming the landscape

I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to get to grips with the issues that underpin my depression. One of the things I’ve identified is that I have a deep need for wildness, and without the experience of wildness, I am depleted and spiritually under-nourished. This led rapidly to the question of why my immediate landscape isn’t nourishing me.

I don’t need to be miles from people, or in pristine wilderness. Some of my best ‘wild’ time in recent years was spent on the edge of the Severn – locations that certainly had other people in. I’m not automatically upset if I go for a walk and encounter other people. The presence of other people does not automatically undermine my experience of wildness.

Back in the canal days, we’d find that about 5pm, the noisy, careless people would go home, and the canal would start to feel wild again. People who came in the evening did not disrupt the experience of wildness. It is, I realise, the same here, especially in the summer.

There are a lot of popular places to take your car, dog and/or children. The landscape is full of people talking noisily and walking carelessly. Some of them stare at their phones, or play music everyone in area can hear. Some ride their mountain bikes over the barrows and insist on offroading in the woods, causing damage. The paths on the commons have expanded as they stomp carelessly through the grasses, apparently oblivious to the delicate ecosystem under their feet. Their dogs chase the skylarks. Their children pick flowers.

I’ve come to the conclusion that certain kinds of human behaviour bring disenchantment into the landscape. It is a temporary problem alleviated as soon as they are gone. I can avoid it by walking the places they don’t go – chiefly the country lanes. It helps if I stay away from the car parks. I find it distressing to encounter a stream of people for whom the land is just an amenity to use, a product to consume. It’s better in the winter because I go out and mostly they do not. It’s better at night and at twilight, but that really limits my options. It is better to walk in the week than at the weekend.

To some degree, I can flex around this. I can’t see any way to change the culture here. Wildness is everywhere, but some kinds of energy and presence from people simply wipes out the magic of that.


Car child, or calm child

We walked to playgroup and back, every day, in all weathers. Then we walked to the first primary school and back, every day, in all weathers. Then we had to cycle to the second primary school. Every day. In all weathers. Now, he cycles alone, every day, in all weathers.

During many of those trips I saw parents taking children the same way, only with cars. So, I can tell you with confidence that by the time you have got a child into and out of a car, and dealt with the parking, it may have been quicker to walk. The idea that driving is quicker and less trouble may not be true. It is always worth questioning it.

We had a good time with those walks. We saw wild things, and dogs and cats, which he always enjoyed. He had time to wake up in the morning on the way in to school, arriving brighter, fresher and more alert as a consequence of the journey in. On the way home, he had time to decompress, to share his day with me and to let off steam. I have no doubt that this has improved my son’s mental health at every stage of his life.

Our young people are suffering. Exam pressure, overcrowded classrooms, lack of opportunity to move around, and fear for the future puts a massive strain on them. Bundling them in to cars doesn’t help with this. When I walked home from school as a teenager it was a social activity and that time with friends was a good spot in my day. Kids in cars are denied those social opportunities. Bodily movement is good for all of us. Children need to move, and the journey to and from school used to give people that.

Of course the roads aren’t as safe as they used to be, and a major contributor to how unsafe the roads are is all the people driving their kids to and from school. Each car journey contributes to the air pollution that is killing people on a shocking scale. Not driving your kid to school will do more to keep them well. Most of them do not melt in the rain.

I’ve watched schools try to encourage confidence, physical health and feelings of independence in young humans. And then you drive them home. The young person who has to be resilient enough to get to and from school in any weather, develops self-confidence, self-reliance and a sense of capability and resilience. The young person who knows that their body can get them places, and who learns to take responsibility for that is learning good life lessons. Even at the age when they need accompanying, it is still teaching them good stuff.

Most adults could do with more fresh air and chilled time as well. Walking to school and back creates little pockets of good family time if you use it that way. Stressing your way through heavy traffic doesn’t do that.

What we grow up with is what we find most normal. For the kid in a car, walking and cycling may always seem a bit alien. The kid who walks or cycles is advantaged for the future. We cannot carry on with car use at the same level. One way or another, it’s going to be unfeasible. Might as well be ready for that!

Being green does not mean being miserable. I have no doubt that walking and cycling to school has improved my quality of life, and improved my son’s quality of life. It’s saved us a lot of money and given us a lot of good experiences.


Uneven ground

Mammals who frequent an area make paths – we humans aren’t unusual in that regard. Granted, other mammals just keep the undergrowth down and the ground compacted, whereas we’ve gone a lot further. We’ve taken our path making to the point of it being much more comfortable and reliable for us (until we can’t afford to fix the potholes) but is it as good as it seems? Accessibility is an issue, certainly. what I’m talking about in this post isn’t feasible for everyone, and will work very differently depending on how you body and senses operate.

Summer walking off the tarmac means a lot of undergrowth. Footpaths in Gloucestershire aren’t being maintained because budgets for everything have been cut. Walking means long grass, fallen trees, dense undergrowth, uneven footing. It is much harder work, and I inevitably go slower and have to make more effort. I also notice that this kind of involved waking takes most, if not all of my attention. I can’t think about much else because I have to pay so much attention to what’s in front of me, to my feet, arms, where the brambles and stinging nettles are, and what wildlife might be trodden on if I’m careless. In short, I have to become deeply immersed in my environment. In other contexts, I can spend a lot of time trying to get to that via meditation, but this is more effective.

Walking on rough ground, I have to be very focused on the present. I am alert to my immediate future – where the path is going, what hazards are coming up, and what I need to do now to make sure I haven’t set myself up for a bigger problem shortly. You can’t totally live in the moment when walking or you’ll have to spend a lot of time backtracking to avoid obstacles you’d have otherwise avoided, and then to go back round you have to enter a relationship with past and present anyway. What happens when walking is a relationship with time that is all about what you’re doing.

Curiously, I find that relationship with time also includes memories of when I last walked in a place. Some of that will be about how I felt and what I did. I also remember locations of wildlife encounters, problems with paths, routes that proved especially rewarding and so forth. Delving into the past in this way enriches the present, and is often practical and useful as well. Wild things have their territories and habits, so remembering what was where previously increases my chances of seeing things again.

I find there’s a mental health benefit to engaging this intensely with my environment. It stops me overthinking. I find it mentally tiring, but there’s also a cleansing, clearing effect that I benefit from. I like knowing that I do not need mental discipline to get into this headspace – I can do it from whatever mess my head is in. The path I walk will show me the way, and if I am too self involved, the path will trip me, cut me and sting me until I pay it the attention and respect it demands.


Walking Speed

If your main aim is to cover as much ground as possible, then walking as quickly as you can is clearly the way to go. If you have little time and want to get as much exercise as you can, it’ll be top speed for you. If you are walking for transport and have to be somewhere at a specific time – again the answer is speed.

If you want to engage with the wild world, then speed is not the answer.

You can engage with the shape of the land by moving through it at a pace, but not with whatever else is living there. You have a better chance of spotting wild things by slowing down.

When we move quickly, our own bodies make a lot of noise. Our clothes rustle, our feet pound, our breathing is heavier and our hearts may pound in our ears. All of this drowns out the subtler noises. To hear and thus spot a creature in the undergrowth, you need to be making less noise with your own body. Moving slowly makes it easier to be quieter. Wild things that routinely get human contact aren’t necessarily scared off by our noise, but they can easily avoid us and we are less likely to notice them.

For wildlife spotting, your peripheral vision is critically important. It’s those small signs of movement picked up in the corner of your eye that will likely lead to seeing something. If you’re moving too fast, what’s in the peripheral vision is harder to process – you get a second or two sometimes to register movement and focus on it before the bird or animal has gone. The faster you move, the more you have to focus on the route before you, the less you use your peripheral vision, and the less you see.

Plants are also likely to be on either side of your path, not dead ahead. Again, your scope for noticing plants is improved if you have time to look to either side. If the plants are right in front of you, you’re probably making poor choices about where to walk. Stay on the path and don’t walk over wild plants if you can help it. Our desire for wildness does not entitle us to go stamping about over wild places. We cause less harm when we stay on the path. Wild things are also less bothered by us if we stay on the path and act predictably. Getting off the path doesn’t increase your chances of seeing wild things and may take you the other way entirely.


Haunted by landscapes

This has been happening to me for a while now – usually on the edges of sleep. Out of nowhere comes an image of a landscape. I won’t necessarily recognise it at first. It tends to come with a feeling of loss and anxiety about not knowing where and when this memory has surfaced from. Sometimes I am able to recall the origin of the memory, sometimes not.

Walking has always been a big part of my life. I’ve walked every landscape I’ve lived in, to at least some degree. I’ve walked wherever I’ve been on holiday – and while holidays haven’t been a thing for some years, walking daytrips have. There are a lot of landscape memories in here. Which means that the memory of a corner of a lane, or a bit of hedge, or a view across some fields isn’t always that easy to identify. It bothers me, remembering and not being able to place those memories.

Something is clearly going on here and at the moment, I don’t know what it is. Landscape is deeply important to me and to my sense of self. In the decade I spent in the west midlands, my dreams were all of the Gloucestershire landscape I grew up in. Most of what’s surfacing at the moment isn’t local to where I now live. Sometimes it feels like the landscape memories are happening as part of a letting go process; that they surface because they are leaving. They aren’t landscapes I can easily bring to mind in a conscious way – I don’t have a great visual memory in the normal scheme of things, so that also makes this odd. These are places I did not know I had memories of.

There are places I would have loved more had I been happier in them – and that certainly isn’t something that was ever led by my relationship with the land. If I had understood myself better, I would have walked more in my twenties. If I had been better understood, there would have been more support to enable me to do that. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive myself for the landscape relationships I did not have, for the places I never really opened my heart to and the emotional relationships I was never able to make.


Rooted in the landscape

Building a relationship with the landscape I live in has changed me. It’s been a slow process over some years, and there hasn’t been much drama in it. There have been no moments of revelation. Gods have not spoken to me. I have no special status or destiny as a consequence of what I’ve been doing. I am no more entitled to speak for the land than anyone else. But, it has been a good and powerful process for me and one I think I will continue to explore for the rest of my life.

Some years ago, I was struck by the phrase that I could walk myself into the land, and walk the land into myself. That’s pretty much it. I’ve built a body knowledge of the land around me for as far as I can walk in any given direction (and get home again). I’ve walked in all seasons and in many different conditions. I’ve walked in the early morning, in the middle of the day, at twilight and at night. I’ve met the plants and creatures living here.

There is a knowledge that comes from taking your body into a space. When we simply look at a landscape, we experience it as outsiders. It becomes a view. Scenery. The picturesque. We are spectators and consumers of it, not participants in it. To be a participant, you have to be in the landscape rather than simply looking at it. Moving a body through a place creates deeper knowing of the place, and how its aspects interrelate. To walk the curve of a hill or follow the journey of a stream is to develop understanding that looking alone cannot give.

I feel rooted. I feel a deep sense of belonging and of participation. I feel this landscape as part of who I am, part of how I make sense of myself. The many journeys I have made through it are part of the story of my own life. My body is shaped in part by how I have walked here and the muscles I’ve honed in so doing. My heart is affected by the effort it takes to climb the hills. I have sweated for this landscape. I’ve had my heart beat hard and fast for it. I have bled here, on brambles and hawthorns. I have fallen sometimes, and worn bruises. I have weathered my skin.

I’m not very goal orientated in my spiritual practice these days. I used to be. I was looking for meaning and purpose and a sense of how to serve and be useful. Much of that is better answered by work I do outside of Paganism – specifically at the moment in my volunteering for The Woodland Trust and working for Transition Stroud. It’s not my Paganism that best serves the land, but my working for environmental causes. I was never that attracted to the kind of revelatory Paganism that enables a person to set up as a guru and charge money for courses. Which is as well, because this doesn’t lend itself.

There was a time when I craved the validation of encountering Gods, or spirits, or anything else powerful that might give me a feeling of being good enough. A desire for approval, for specialness, for significance. Much of that has fallen away in recent years. I don’t think this landscape has any opinion of my either way, I’m just another creature moving through it, one of countless tiny blinks in the eons of its being. There’s a peacefulness in that, and it leaves me with nothing much to prove.


Contemplative Walking

The idea of contemplative walking developed out of my time with the contemplative Druid group in Stroud. We tried some silent, meditative walking in that context, and I found it didn’t suit me – especially not when in the company of other people. I began exploring ways of walking and sharing, and came up with a broad set of principles.

If you walk as meditation, you can end up more inside your head and less engaged with what’s around you. An approach to walking that is engaged can actually be helped by the presence of and interaction with other people. Two or more people will likely see more, and the invitation to share can help increase focus rather than diminish it.

Over a longer walk, silent meditation can feel a bit inhuman. Things arise in the rhythm of movement, the experience of being in the land, and practical needs, that require voices. How to talk becomes an interesting question. It is essential not to prioritise human conversation and to be agreed that it isn’t rude to break off in favour of noting something around you.

The default state when walking should be silence. There should be no small talk, no conversation for the sake of hearing your own voice. Avoid trivia, and avoid the kinds of conversations that involve point scoring or showing off. If someone is moved to speak, hold some silence around that where you can – this is a process we used in contemplative Druidry for speaking, and it is a powerful way of being with people. It works just as well when walking.

This approach creates the space to engage with the land. It also makes room for deeper thoughts to emerge. When things arise that need saying, there is a space into which they can be said. There may be exchange or conventional conversation, and that’s fine within the above parameters.

Listening carefully is an essential part of contemplative walking. It is by listing that you may notice or even see much of the wildlife around you. Listening is key to spotting small mammals in the undergrowth. Hearing bird calls will likely lead you to seeing them. You can’t be totally focused on regular human conversation and listen in this way. However, if you speak softly to each other and leave plenty of gaps, you can listen carefully to each other while also listening to what’s in your surroundings. It’s a way of being that enables us to be human with each other while not being totally human-centric.

I’ve tested this approach. I’ve walked with people who mostly just chat and observed how much of the wildlife they don’t see. I’ve also developed it as an idea within my family, and we do this together to excellent effect. When we started, I was the one who tended to spot all the wildlife, but over a few years both my son and husband have caught up to me and are just as alert to what’s around us. It can seem like magic, but it is really a skill set that can be learned, coupled with a willingness to move away from conventional human interactions so as to open out a broader dialogue with your surroundings.

 


The joys of walking for transport

I’ve never driven a car, and I’ve not lived in a household with a car since my mid twenties. I’ve walked to shop, and carried groceries home. I’ve used trains and buses, and occasionally I get lifts, but mostly I’ve walked, or cycled. I don’t really enjoy cycling so these days I mostly get places by walking to them. Where I live was picked out with that in mind.

Most of the time, walking for transport is a joy. I get outside, I get exercise, I see wildlife, I meet people. While I’m walking, I get time to process ideas and feelings and come up with ideas. If I’m walking to work or to meetings, I get time to ready myself. I arrive calm and mentally prepared and I am never held up by traffic. At the end, I get to do my digesting on the way home, and I usually arrive home calm and on top of things.

I do not have to do radical things to feel adventurous. Every now and then I end up having to walk in adverse weather conditions – in snow, and ice and heavy rain. I have the kit for this, although as downpours increase in violence, I get soaked through more often. I do not need to seek out mountains to feel a bit heroic. Some weeks, all I have to do is handle the regular shopping in the conditions around me. I do not have to challenge myself with grand gestures to feel alive. I feel alive every time I’m going somewhere.

Often, the green answers are presented as losses. Could you give up your car? Could you do without it? As though the car makes us better off, and poverty is what we get in its absence. I’ve spent enough mornings walking past lines of traffic, seeing the faces of people stuck in their cars. None of them are smiling. I’ve got stress free easy movement, peace of mind, lower expenses and a healthier body because I walk. Every time I walk past a traffic queue I am reminded of the riches inherent in my choices.

There is so much freedom and independence to be had if you can set of from your own door and head out into the world on your own two feet. We could leave the roads for those who need them – for those who do not have the privilege of being able to walk, for the emergency services, for the movement of stuff too heavy to carry about on shoulders. We could empty our roads and fill our pavements, and put calmer human interactions into our days. We could improve our air quality and our personal health. It remains a mystery to me why more people don’t see the freedom and wealth inherent in walking as more desirable than the cost and stress of being in traffic.